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I've recently come across an interesting way to practice. I was asking a very accomplished guitarist on how he practiced technique, since his was amazingly effortless.

What he told me surprised me. He said he'd watch hours of movies etc. while having his guitar in his hands and running through different permutations of fingers. The most important part here is that he claimed to not really pay any attention to what he was doing consciously and also that it was the core of his technique practice.

Now, I wouldn't want to limit this question to guitar, or even music, because it is very general. Therefore: how much motor skills can you learn and how much muscle memory can you acquire while simply repeating the act over and over without paying attention to it? I'd love to hear what experience you've got with this, thanks!

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Well, repeating anything is going to make you better at it. If it's simple enough that you don't have to pay attention then you could absolutely do this; you're just "burning in" the pattern even more. Key, though, is that if you're doing it wrong you'll just get "better" at doing it wrong.

One you get beyond basic fingering permutations though I think you'd need to pay attention in order to do anything beyond make a mess. If you're moving up and down the neck you'll have to be very familiar with the spacing, which takes conscious practice. If you're stretching for strange chords you'll have to consciously practice, and of course consciously learn what notes/positions compose the chord in the first place!

In short:

  • It takes conscious effort up front for something nontrivial to become automatic.

  • Just because something is automatic doesn't mean it can't be further improved. Mindless practice of something automatic can help to a point, and can certainly keep it fresh and your fingers/etc. limber.

  • If you want to improve your method, rather than just get better at your current method, you'll need conscious practice.

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    @DahnJahn Also if you are just beginning to develop muscle memory for any kind of motion, it can be a pain to unlearn what you were doing unconsciously under the impression that something was being established effortlessly. So at least be aware of what you are practicing :) – user1306 Dec 1 '12 at 0:23
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Liszt advised his students to read books while practicing purely technical exercises, mainly to prevent boredom when practicing for many hours. One exercise was to just raise and lower one finger for 15 minutes, then repeat for each of the other 9 fingers.

Henselt read the Bible while practicing for 16 hours every day.

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The problem with me is that unfocused practicing is extremely boring and not helpful. what could take you an hour (of full attention try hard) takes a span of months of mindless repetition. I know because I'm like this right now, I would play a piece and don't even try to remember it, just constantly hammering the same notes, when I could spend that time trying to analyze the piece or listening to the sound or at least memorizing the notes and marking patterns. I would always get to the point where I can play the entire song but only to mess up at anytime because I only rely on muscle memory. once I whiff, I completely mess up the muscle memory and have to start all over again.

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